When the lions come home

December 8, 2019

Shahzad explores the seamless quality of narratives and the idea of associating writing with gender, geographical location and affiliations

“Writers are formless, shapeless creatures like water – a quality that lies at the very heart of what they create,” writes Navid Shahzad in her newly published book, Aslan’s Roar: Turkish Television And The Rise Of The Muslim Hero. Shahzad’s book could be read as a well-researched and thoroughly investigated dissertation.

The premise of the book, that springs out from every page, is Shahzad’s belief in the fluidity of the written word. She emphasises the seamless quality of narratives; be they on screen or in the form of the written word; as well as the inconsequential idea of associating writing with gender, geographical location and affiliations.

The book is divided into eight sections, each dealing with a different facet of the topic under discussion: the emergence of the Muslim hero in Turkish TV plays. A scholar of English literature as she is, Shahzad’s text is punctuated with references ranging from Shakespeare to Eliot to Rumi and from Oedipus to Othello to Daghan. She has a keen eye for the script and screen presence of actors as she observes each scene like an active recipient, instead of passively watching TV.

For readers, who can especially read into the relativity of the Turkish TV script and classical English literature, the discourse of Aslan’s Roar is doubly enjoyable. Those who are familiar with either one, are aided with Shahzad’s lucid style in a manner, that she seems to be coolly delivering a speech, during which she adds elements of personalised experience and emotiveness, her own stories of triumphs and tests, giving the reader a brief tour of her cognitive self.

Theorists, who have studied mass media, have projected the power of a ‘message’ that reaches a rapt audience, and how effectively that message stays with them. Shahzad discusses at length, the misrepresentation of the Muslim hero, particularly that of the Turk, in American cinema. From there she goes on to reveal how a systematic portrayal of the Turkish hero has helped him rise from dust into becoming a high grossing narrative, constantly changing its shape to stay relevant.

According to Shahzad, there are two kinds of images for Turkish heroes: first, the politically motivated warrior. This, as classical as it may sound with terms of the epic characteristic of the hero, is one essential dimension of the Turkish culture since they classify their national heritage to one of being warriors. The other image is of the romantic or the tragic hero. The latter image is also not devoid of political affiliations. Shahzad discusses several Turkish heroes from TV plays, who live in a modern world, have a love interest but find themselves entrapped with political dilemmas off and on, subtly or sturdily – just like Pakistan is a happening place for political dynamics which affect the commonest of people every day.

The most interesting facet of the book, is the fact, that although it means to address masculinity, Shahzad makes it quite clear that there is no point debating masculinity unless it is contrasted and compared with femininity. Of course, the paradigm is reversible for writers who write with the perspective of a female hero in literary or screen narratives.

Shahzad argues, although there is a growth of literature discussing the feminine discourse, the rationale for her book is to fill a void in the existing body of literature about the Muslim and especially, the Turkish hero, who is consistently shapeshifting owing to the consistent changes in his partner – the Turkish heroine. The flexibility has redefined the classical hero who was known only for his ability to sacrifice, succeed as a warrior and prove his sexual virility in his harem.

The section Essays comprises of nine essays. The essays engage the reader sensually since Shahzad effortlessly fictionalises the plot, scenes and settings for the reader. It is a babushka surprise, to read Shahzad’s lyrical sentences giving the reader a treat of fiction.

In one essay, Of Ships And Men, she discusses how the nest-leaving act of a daughter and a son become polar in nature. A daughter, when leaves the parents’ house, after her marriage, is supposed to be “given away”, while the sons, who leave for work or for marriage simply, “move out.” The essay titled, The Tragic Hero, is a perfect summation of the book, and a deeper understanding of, “why we connect with tragedy,” a thesis which indeed, stays with the reader.

Her references from Sufi poets, English dramatists, Pakistani politics, Turkish history and American cinema, massively defend the thesis of the seamless quality of narratives. In addition to assessing scripts, she adjusts small bits of information about her process to connect with the scripts under discussion. In doing so, she helps the reader decipher the densely intellectual folds of her persona.

Shahzad, keeps the reader hanging to every word, until the last page, where she reveals the meaning of the title of her book: Aslan, which is translated as lion in Turkish. In layman terms, the Turkish identify with lions as the Pakistani could identify with Iqbal’s Shaheen.

Thus Aslan’s Roar, the book itself, is no less than a roar that demands attention to itself. It is also an echo of a roar the Turkish TV is making overseas, Pakistan included. The prowess of the message, through mass media, indeed, is no less than a roar. It startles, shakes up, demands attention and stays with the audience in the form of a social construct built by the mere words of a writer.

Aslan’s Roar

Turkish Television And The Rise Of The Muslim Hero

Author: Navid Shahzad

Publisher: Sang-e-Meel

Publications, 2019

Pages: 419 (Hardcover)

Price: US$50

— Sana Munir

Aslan’s Roar: Turkish Television And The Rise Of The Muslim Hero by Navid Shahzad